Sunday, April 30, 2006

Vote for Lok Paritran!

As opposed to my previous blog on Pudhiyadhor, this one's going to be short and sweet.

Why should you vote for Lok Paritran?
  1. Lok Paritran needs to get a certain percentage of the overall tally in order to be able to secure recognition as a regional or national party. This provides certain benefits such as allotment of symbol etc.
  2. We need to show the devils (a.k.a. current politicians) that if we are provided with a genuine alternative, we will take the trash out.
So if you're eligible to vote in Madras, in one of the seven constituencies that Lok Paritran candidates are contesting in, take off that day, or do whatever else it takes - make your vote count! Stand up for our rights as citizens of this country!

fReaK ouT!

P.S. The Lok Paritran symbol for constituencies other than Anna Nagar.

P.P.S. In TN, Lok Paritran has fielded contestents at Mylapore, Chepauk, Thousand Lights, Theagaraya Nagar, Anna Nagar, Villivakkam (Thiruvallur) and Mudukulathur (Ramanathapuram).

P.P.P.S. I have no connection with Lok Paritran.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


India is a land of diversity. Tall mountains, perennial rivers, lush rain forests, stunning beaches, coral reefs, deep uninhabited desert, salt marshes. Packed urban areas, over-farmed rural land, obesity, starving people both in rural villages and urban slums. Apartments priced at Rs 64,000 a sq.ft. ($1500 per sq.ft.), people earning Rs. 1Crore a month ($225,000 p.m.), people earning Rs. 50 a day ($1) and living without running water or sanitation. People who pay Rs. 1 Lakh a year ($2,500) for educating their children, people who stop sending their children to school because there are no teachers there anyway. Kids who learn yoga, karate, bharatanatyam, chess, violin, carnatic music, painting, and handicraft, and find out how to increase their self-esteem, and leadership qualities, and are exposed to a wide variety of experiences and places, and whose parents earn less than Rs. 50 a day.

Hold on, the last one didn't fit the pattern, did it?

The reason is an organisation setup by a retired Professor of Tamil, from the Nandanam Arts College in Madras, Dr. Narayanan. The organisation is called 'Pudhiyadhor...' which literally translates to 'A New...', as in 'A New India'. Here's a rough idea of their aims.

The diversity and disparity in India is particularly shocking in the many villages which are but a few kilometers outside our large cities. While some of the residents may be middle-class or even upper-class, the village will itself be extremely poor, with a large number of people earning barely survival wages. In some of the villages, traditional occupations such as soothsaying might be predominant, while in others the elders of the family might work in construction in the city. The government schools in these villages will be barely functional, with disinterested teachers and very little transfer of knowledge. It was to remedy this, to show the children and the villagers that a better life is possible through education, that Pudhiyadhor was started.

One of the offshoots of 'Pudhiyadhor...Ramapuram', is 'Pudhiyadhor...Urappakkam', started by my sister and a bunch of her friends from Crescent Engineering College, Vandalur, Madras.

Urappakkam is a village on the GST Road, a little after Vandalur. There is a community of soothsayers living there in abject poverty. The elders go into the city, to public places like the beach, and earn their living. The government school at Urappakkam is just an average one, with the teachers neither particularly enthusiastic, nor actively dispirited. The children typically drop-out as soon as an extra hand is required for work, one important reason being that the parents see little or no improvement in their children due to the school education. If they're not able to read in the 5th standard, why should they continue to waste their time in school?

These days, the transformation in the children of the village is visible for everyone to see. The children come to a common area every evening, finish their homework, and then study further, or practice their singing, dancing, arts or crafts. Volunteers from the NSS at Crescent Engineering College go there every day, and spend 3 to 4 hours with the children. On weekends, there are programs scheduled for the whole two days. The Krishnamacharya Yoda mandiram conducts regular yoga sessions for both the children and the parents. Children go for carnatic music classes, instrumental and vocal, some go to learn dance. All of them learn arts and handicraft, to make small decorative items for their houses, to make their own cloth bags for school, etc.

The kids also do much better in school due to the constant attention and importance given to education - there's one student in the 11th who wants to do medicine, and studies well enough that he might actually get a seat! They are taught spoken English, and pick up a few words in other languages from the visitors to Pudhiyadhor.

The kids like Pudhiyadhor so much that the punishment meted out to any of the kids who misbehave is a ban from coming there for a couple of days. This has proven to be so effective that their behaviour these days is probably far better than you'd get from a random bunch of middle-class kids!

All the knowledge they gain also provides them with a great boost to their self-confidence, something absolutely required in this world with its emphasis on communication skills. Hopefully, in some years, all the children in this village will be educated and have a chance to make it in this world, on a level equal to that of any other middle-class child.

What is required now is sustained effort, this is not a one-year or even five-year journey! There also need to be more Pudhiyadhor's, in every disadvantaged village in India, allowing every child his fair shot at life.

The expenses for setting up and running a Pudhiyadhor are not much, but it requires dedicated people - this is a mostly human resource intensive program. The children get healthy snacks every evening, sundal cooked by one of the ladies in the village. On weekends they get breakfast, and money is also required for the various classes, and for trips to the zoo, or planetarium. A full-time or part-time worker is required to maintain continuity and ensure that the daily plans for work and longer term plans for work are followed. This person would ideally be a village teenager who has dropped out after the 10th and will not want a high salary. On the whole the low-cost, high-labour nature of Pudhiyadhor works well in India, after all one thing we don't lack is people. Dedication is required among the volunteers, but is not lacking among students who have been exposed to the real world and among some others who have seen the light.

All that I've written pales into comparison with actually seeing and experiencing the real thing. If you want to see for yourself what a bunch of college-kids have done over little less than a year, drop me a line. Both the Pudhiyadhor's are on the outskirts of Madras, and visiting on weekends would be best. You can see what they do, and perhaps try to setup one more Pudhiyadhor in your native town, village, or a village near the outskirts of your city.

Those of you who would like to help but don't think you can visit, I would seriously suggest that an actual visit does more to help than a small donation. The awareness that you get of the challenges that these kids face will do more than a one time donation. However, donations are taken for specific things - for instance they are building a small common area, since the previous room was a mud-walled thatched roof hut, which has almost been destroyed in the rain.

So here's to the success of many more Pudhiyadhors!

And may many more innovative programs like these be born to get India out of the pit it is in!

fReaK ouT!

P.S. Some of what I've written here is paraphrased from Dr. Narayanan's webpage and some stuff that my sister has written.

P.P.S. AID-India does something similar by setting up tuition centers at slums and villages. I know of one in Jaya Nagar, and a few in and around Madras. But they are concentrated more on education and less on extra-curricular activities and what might be termed 'whole-life' activities. AID also has an emphasis on reaching a large number of children with low human resources, and repeatable and replicable solutions. Essentially AID would like to create a template and allow other schools and organisations to learn from them.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

40 Metric Tons of Pressure

Set us up a box with various bits of Open Source wizardry, mainly to serve mail but also with SVN and Trac at a hardware manufacturer's plant, far from the madding crowds of Bangalore, yesterday.

Now these guys make HARDWARE - you name the shape in steel that you want, and they'll cut, warp, bend, punch and break things to create it. And ohmygod the machines! This column is too small to contain the number of exclamation marks required to express my slack-jawed astonishment on seeing them.

There's this punching machine. And what a machine eet ees! It's got a rotating turret which is suspended vertically above a bed on which the sheet of metal moves automatically. The turret can take 24 different punching tools along with the corresponding holes. The turret is programmed to rotate into position - the sheet of metal moves to control x and y, and the punching tool is pushed hard and fast into the sheet. Different shapes are created based on the shape of the punch and the distance between the punch and 'hole'. The machine operating at high-speed, punching, and moving the sheet in an arcane pattern, is truly a sight to behold.

Then there's a bending machine. Ever wondered how the various metal boxes you use all have the same shape? Well this is the machine that does it. There's an inch thick metal sheet with a groove along the edge. A corresponding edge shape-inverted sheet comes down on it with up to 40 metric tons of hydraulic pressure. If there's anything in between, well it's going to get bent way out of shape. The depth to which the punch goes in determines the angle to which the sheet is bent. The whole thing is automated brilliantly, with the operator required only to hold the sheet hard against a moving base. The base moves according to the location on the sheet where the bending has to be done. After each bend is done, the base moves to the new location, and the operator has to hold the sheet as shown on the screen against the base, until the cycle is done. Repeat for each piece of metal.

I found something awe-inspiring in all of this otherwise quite mundane mechanical engineering. How much effort, intellectual and mechanical, has gone into refining and improving the method of such a seemingly simple thing as bending metal? How many times a day do we use the fruits of these labours without realizing the near god-like strength that has been vested in these machines? Do we ever stop to wonder that humans have created machines which can tear apart and bend steel in ways that no puny human can ever hope to achieve with his bare hands? Sure there's an intellectual awareness somewhere, that the finished metal goods we see around us must have been cut and bent, and that machines must have had some part in the process. But when you actually see the machines in operation - you realize that humans are truly gods!

I wonder why I have never had this awareness before, and why people around me are not struck dumb, as I am, at the sheer scale of what we as a race have achieved. Is it not incredible? Is there anything more incredible?

Some of what we have done is magic by any definition*. Imagine pointing a hidden wifi camera at an Apple Intel Powerbook ;-). Configure the powerbook to show the camera output fullscreen. Let the Powerbook run on the battery, i.e., unconnected to anything else. Bring Newton (the apple and prism guy) and put him in front of the powerbook. Watch as his head explodes when he tries to make sense out of this.

Or call your friend 20,000 kilometers away from your location in the middle of the forest atop a small hill, ask him to send you a picture. Or send him a video of you in the middle of the forest, on top of a hill. Show this to Gauss and watch his head explode.

The point is that the simple things that we take for granted everyday, are anything but. Man has created wondrous things, things which would be considered magical and god-like just a hundred years ago, never mind a thousand (you'd probably be burned as a witch). And watch my head explode as I try to wonder what we'll accomplish in the next hundred.

Take a minute, find something to wonder at. Let me know what you think is wonderful.

fReaK ouT!

* Or as Clarke put it "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."